Monthly Archives: July 2009

Demonstrating the Social Construction of Knowledge: The Myth of Killer Saturated Fat

Out of all the uncertainty that can be found in the vast ocean of knowledge claims “out there,” at least one thing is certain today: saturated fat is bad for your heart and if you stop eating it you will live a longer, better life.

Now we know better. Or do we? In this post I want to briefly discuss the so-called “lipid hypothesis,” which according to wikipedia, claims that “lowering definitely elevated blood cholesterol levels (specifically, blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol) will reduce the risk of heart attacks caused by coronary heart disease.” Aka, saturated fat is bad for you and reducing your saturated fat intake is good for you. Before I continue, I want to encourage everyone to take a cursory look at the freely available article “The Oiling of America“, by Mary Enig, renowned expert on lipid biochemistry and member of the International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics. Of particular relevance to my concerns in this post is the section “The ‘Evidence’ for the Lipid Hypothesis,” which beautifully illustrates how a socially constructed fact can attain the status of “objective knowledge” in spite of many researchers sincerely striving for “The Truth” (Also see the Science article “The Soft Science of Dietary Fat” by Gary Taubes). Fate is a curious thing, often taking a twist or turn just at the right time to set off a chain reaction of self-reinforcing soundbites that coallesce into “common knowledge” (now we know better).

I have usually refrained from discussing personal, social or political issues on this blog in order to reserve somewhat the tone of academic philosophy. However, this issue of nutrition is a particularly good example of where philosophy makes itself highly relevant to society “at large” and I can’t help but comment. The history of anti-realism in continental philosophy, (as described in Lee Braver’s excellent book A Thing of This World; which is being discussed here, at PerverseEgalitarianism) provides the penultimate theoretical framework to discuss the ways in which handy political stereotypes get overblown and solidified into “well known” maxims and soundbites (the War on Drugs comes to mind here). Such facts can by all means be considered “socially constructed”. Heidegger, Foucault, and Latour are good resources for developing a theoretical framework to think about such issues of social construction. However, although academic philosophy is an excellent way to think through these issues of subjectivity and objectivity, it is by no means difficult to come to a similar conclusion by simply watching something like Fox News. The elevation of empirically weak knowledge claims to the status of “objective fact” is only accelerated through the potentially dangerous social mediums of network news, poor journalism and the more modern ubiquity of talking head commentary and the  information cesspool that is the internet.

It is ironic however that the most reliable way to rid yourself of such scientifically unsupported delusions is to utilize the collectively skeptical analysis of knowledge that constitutes a growing subset of internet culture. Google “saturated fat heart disease” and the third link will be a scientific editorial discussing the “paradoxical” aspects of the current nutritional dogma in regard to factors such as the deadly metabolic syndrome, which will effect at least 30% of Americans born after the year 2000. The fourth link is a Men’s Health article which asks, “What if Bad Fat is Actually Good for You?“. On Wikipedia there is a “contrary research” section on the page for saturated fat.

Moreover, I find it interesting that on websites conducive towards “natural selection” and the critical analysis of scientific data, one can more quickly triangulate on what is bullshit and what isn’t. A search for “saturated fat” on reddit will not turn up results which are favorable for the lipid hypothesis. Even youtube, not known for its rational discussion, will turn up a host of videos condemning the dogma of current mainstream nutrition agencies around the world if you search for “saturated fat heart disease”.

It seems then that the only way out of the knowledge hole we have dug ourselves into through truth-corrosive social factors like modern media circlejerks is through more media, albeit analyzed through the proven filter of scientific, rational debate. However, it isn’t going to be through pure assertion that we overcome the idiocy that is American nutritional advice; it will be through careful analysis of empirical data in light of the best theoretical frameworks available. Sadly, it won’t be easy to disseminate factual knowledge concerning nutrition when the biological reality is ridiculously complicated and not easily reducible to something the Average Joe can understand in a two minute blurb.

But do we now know better? Yes, yes we do.

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The Humanization of Nature

In picture format.

Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

-Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology

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If the Moon Landing Happened Today

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Was Jesus fully human?

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Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (Matthew 6:34)

While this verse can be read in terms of a pragmatic wisdom regarding worry-warts and unnecessary anxiety, I think a deeper reading can also be procured that  ultimately brings into the question Jesus’s humanity. Is it possible for a human to ignore the future and live entirely within the present moment? When a father looks at his daughter, can he only see the current instant irrespective of his wishes and desires regarding the future: to teach her how to drive or walk her down the aisle? From a Heideggerian perspective, we are always throwing ourselves into the world (so that the past “resonates” with our current interpretation of the world) and  simultaneously projecting possibilities into the future. We are thrown projection. It is this temporal horizon that gives human mental life the curious transcendental feature of being more than a series of instant nows being transposed through time as if human experience was like a simple train moving along the tracks. As Bergson points out, this form of temporality lacks “duration” and can not account for the continuity and interpenetration of past-present-future which makes up our phenomenal experience.

It seems then that if we take the above verse seriously, we can see how radical Christianity is on a fully realized phenomenological level. The ueber-Christian is not really human is the phenomenological sense understood by Heidegger as Dasein. Dasein projects hus possibilities into the future to the extent that when it looks at hus daughter, hu literally sees the future. Not quite in an abstract, theoretically sense – although this is a possible mode of cognition – but rather,  in the enactive sense of “now”-perception being expanded beyond the immediate given of sensory input. As with seeing a coin spinning around on the table, the capacity for memory creates a perceptual field transcendent to the instant-moment and in the same sense, future-memory creates a transcendence that moves forwards in time.

How then can we follow in the footsteps of Jesus by not giving a thought for the morrow? Our basic outlook on the world, on our friends and family, on the familiar environment we reside in, is steeped in terms of temporality, forwards and backwards. The horizon of human experience is not that of the idealized instant, living like a Zen monk in the perfect Now. We do not live in the Now. Our lives are spaced out; time is but a horizon into past happenings and future possibilities. Was Jesus fully human then? Our answer here must be negative.

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A Short Lesson on the Alleged "Fallacies" of Evolutionary Thinking

From PhilosophyNow magazine.

I often just assume that most of my reader’s will agree with me that evolution is as close to “factual” as it is really going to get for science. However, if you have ever taken an undergraduate philosophy class, you know that not everyone shares this view and in fact, many people who purport to evince rationality and skepticism cast doubt on the revered status of evolutionary theory (one can find a whole network of such Christian “rationalists” starting from the blogroll on sites such as this or this). While I have since learned that it is futile to enter into such debates with the explicit goal of really sparking existential doubt, I still find it useful to bone up on logic and evidence concerning evolutionary theory. For this reason, I thought the PhilosophyNow article was worth sharing. Enjoy!

p.s. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I have heard excellent things about Jerry Coyne’s new book Why Evolution is True.

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The Phenomenology of Men

What men are thinking.

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Thoughts on Braver, "later Heidegger", and ontic realism

In this post, I want to take some time to outline the extent to which I disagree with Lee Braver’s analysis of Heidegger in chapter six of his A Thing of this World: A History of Continental Anti-Realism. The reason I have chosen this purely negative analysis is because if I included all the points on which I agreed with Braver in addition to all the points I disagree on, this would be a a rather long and boring post (as it is likely to already be too long, and perhaps boring). By jumping straight into the areas of disagreement I have with Braver, I hope to show that according to my interpretation, early Heidegger and later Heidegger do not explicitly contradict each other but rather, only reaffirm the central philosophical insights towards which Heidegger was working at throughout his entire life. To get started, I am afraid that I must disagree with the first sentence of chapter six:

Hegel, Nietzsche, and the early Heidegger were all engaged in the project of working out the implications of Kant’s anti-realism while simultaneously trying to break free of certain ways of framing the issue.

For me, this sentence is highly loaded and misses the ways in which Heidegger sought to establish a crude form of ontic realism throughout his career, especially in Being and Time (BT) but also in his later works as well. As I see it, early Heidegger was not seeking to confirm Kant’s anti-realism through a “temporalizing [of reality] into the forms of engaged instrumentality or disengaged inertness.” As I have tried to argue elsewhere, when one reads Heidegger in terms of “determining reality” as either Dasein infused (ready-to-hand) or in terms of “disengaged inertness” (present-at-hand), one misses the way in which Heidegger was an ontic realist through his conception of presence. Basically, I see Braver as largely missing the realist orientation of BT when he claims that early Heidegger was arguing for A1 mind-dependence by denying a mind-independent reality through phenomenological-ontology. By missing the realism of Heidegger, the “givenness” of the clearing of being that is so important in later Heidegger becomes obfuscated in light of relativist sound bites like “truth as unconcealment” or “es er-eignet sich” (which, though, aren’t necessarily relativist blurbs). Allow me to elaborate on phenomenological-ontology:

For both Braver’s early and later Heidegger, there cannot be a distinction between appearance and reality because “reality” itself fluctuates according to whether Dasein is engaged or disengaged and hus particular historical attitude and cultural background. When engaged, reality consists of referential value-structures related to practical comportment (tool-mode); when disengaged, reality consists of value-less present-at-hand objectivities (staring-mode). It is no surprise then that Braver reads BT has one more book working out the implications of Kantian anti-realism through the denial of noumena and replacing it with a mind-dependent reality that constantly fluctuates depending on the attitude or mode of  Dasein the perceiver. However, on my reading – following Taylor Carman in his Heidegger’s Analytic – early Heidegger (and later Heidegger, in his own way) very much sought (contra Braver) to establish an ontic realism which includes a distinction between appearance and reality (with reality understood in a special, Heideggerian sense of course). This is done through multiple conceptual tools, namely: being as presence, the definition of phenomena and semblances, the as-structure, and truth as unconcealment. All of these conceptions seek to establish several points which throw a wrench in Braver’s distinctions between early and later Heidegger as anti-realist and realist, respectively.

To start, being as presence and the distinction between phenomena and semblance do much to get rid of the notion that Heidegger was in the business of denying a mind-independent reality. It is precisely the fact that the totality of entities in the world (presence) is independent of our consciousness of it that allows for the possibility of it being presented to us in the first place. This is the “it” of the “es gibt”; the “it” when one says “It’s raining!”. For Heidegger,  only on account of there being a world independent of us that we can make an interpretation of it, seeing the entities in the world as something. It is only through Kant that we got the idea that the world perceived by consciousness is dependent on that consciousness to appear as it is. In contrast, by defining phenomena as that which appears, without there being any noumena “behind” that appearance, Heidegger in BT seeks to get rid of this indirect representationalism and replace it with a direct realism.

In everyday behavior, say, in moving around this room, taking a look around my environment, I perceive the wall and the window. To what am I directed in this perception? To sensations? Or, when I avoid what is perceived, am I turning aside from representational images and taking care not to fail out of these representational images and sensations into the courtyard of the university building? (Basic Problems)

Following Husserl, early Heidegger wishes to get rid of the noumena/phenomena distinction, but as against Braver’s interpretation, does not do so by denying the capacity to see appearances. In the following passages, we can see Heidegger point out the logical problem in Kant’s analysis of phenomenology, and we can simultaneously see how the result of recognizing this distinction is a limiting, Kantian style critique of ontology that says only as phenomenology, is ontology possible :

Kant uses the term “appearance” in this twofold way. According to him “appearances” are, in the first place, the “objects of empirical intuition”: they are what shows itself in such intuition. But what thus shows itself (the “phenomenon” in the genuine primordial sense) is at the same time an “appearance” as an emanation of something which hides itself in that appearance – an emanation which announces. (BT 54)

[This is Heidegger’s update on Kant’s definitions]“Phenomenon”, the showingitselfinitself, signifies a distinctive way in which something can be encountered. “Appearance,” on the other hand, means a referencerelationship which is in an entity itself, and which is such that what does the referring (or the announcing) can fulfill its possible function only if it shows itself in itself and is thus a “phenomenon.” (BT 54)

Only as phenomenology, is ontology possible. In the phenomenological conception of “phenomenon” what one has in mind as that which shows itself is the being of entities, its meaning, its modifications and derivatives. And this showingitself is not just any showingitself, nor is it some such thing as appearing. Least of all can the being of entities ever be anything such that “behind it” stands something else “which does not appear.” (BT 60)

We see then that Heidegger did not think the appearance/reality distinction was entirely wrong, he only thought that it needed to be conceived in a way such that when we fail to perceive the world as it really is, we are merely seeing a semblance i.e.  an ontic malfunction. In all other cases, we are perceiving the world as it is, with “is” being understood in the ontological sense given by the referential systems of value-structure (ready-to-hand, etc).

I realize that this approach to Heidegger’s ontic realism is sloppy, so allow me to try and summarize what we have established so far. In both Kantian and Heideggerian systems, there are “phenomena” – that which shows itself. For Kant, that which shows itself is merely an extension of our own consciousness, and in this way, what “shows itself” is but a mere appearance because if it could really show itself, we would be perceiving the noumena and not the phenomena. For Heidegger, in contrast, that which shows itself can either be a true phenomena seen “as it really is”[the existential is] or it can be a semblance, where we see something as something it isn’t [existentially]. Both cases are dependent on the possibility of something “showing itself” to us. In the case of the semblance, what “shows itself” is the misrepresentation e.g. when seeing a stick in the grass as a snake, what “shows itself” is the appearance of the snake. When truly experiencing a phenomena, and not a semblance, what “shows itself” is the thing in the world itself e.g. seeing a stick in the grass “as” a stick. In both cases, there is never, strictly speaking, a phenomena which is also an appearance, as in Kant where both phenomena and semblances must be appearances, whereas in Heidegger, only the semblance is the appearance and the phenomena is the “showing itself in itself” (keep in mind though that a semblance is also a phenomenon in a way because it is showing itself “as itself”, which is a misrepresentation. This introduces Heidegger’s distinction between a Kantian “mere appearance” and a Heideggerian “semblance”).

We are now in a position to see the importance of the “as-structure” for dealing with Braver’s claim that early Heidegger was committed to a Kantian A1 anti-realism. With the being of Dasein conceived as presence, being is understood as “that which determines entities as entities”(BT 24/SZ 6). Accordingly, we can now see why Braver might be mistaken in assuming that truth as unconcealment “eliminates the distinction between correct and incorrect unconcealment”.  With the as-structure of interpretation, as outlined by the distinction between semblance and phenomena, we can see how it is possible to correctly see something “as it is” or incorrectly see it as “something which it is not”. This correctness or incorrectness of perception is only possibile with the capacity for language and the referential totality of tool-modes and language games. The man who sees the hammer as a hammer – as something to be used in construction – is seeing it “correctly”; whereas the man who sees the hammer as a piece of art to be displayed in his house is seeing it “incorrectly”. However, the seeing something “as it is” is not a correspondence with the “thing in itself” of Kant, but rather, only a “correspondence” in the minimal sense of playing along with an established language game that is “there”, irrespective of our individual consciousness by virtue of being communal and socialized.

Coming back to being as presence, I want to now discuss the connection between R6 realism of the subject and Braver’s interpretation of early and later Heidegger. For Braver, early Heidegger is committed to a discovering an a-historical “deep, true structure of the self” with later Heidegger being committed to destroying such a transcendental enterprise. However,with the being of Dasein conceived in terms of presence and the ways in which we can variously interpret that presence as one thing or another, we come to a conception of the self that isn’t quite as transcendental or a-historical as Braver and other scholars might imagine. If one conceives of the basic structure of the self in terms of interpreting the present, ontic world in various ways according to language games and the as-structure, and then couple this world-interpretation with a reflexive self-interpretation that is intimately related to this world-interpretation, then one does not get a picture of a static, transcendental subject, but rather, of a dynamic flux of world-interpretations and self-interpretations that change in accordance with the world-interpretations and vice-versa.

The only thing “transcendental” to Dasein is the fact that the most basic and underlying self-interpretation which feeds back into the world-interpretation is the interpretation of selfhood, or “I”-ness.  Dasein sees huself in terms of an “I”; indeed, Dasein lives hus entire world through this conception, both in authentic and inauthentic modes of being (being as presence). In the inauthentic mode, caught up in the daily affairs of life, we unconsciously let slip expressions like “I am so flustered!”. In the authentic mode, we can consciously reflect on our experience and think “I am the author of my actions” or “did I really see that snake or did I just see a stick?”. In both modes of authenticity, the “I” structures the basic hermeneutics of world and self intepretation. It is also the “I” which gives humans the capacity to “own” or “possess” anything, including an identity, a house, a feeling, or a perception. It is the basis for “mineness”.

While some who are more anthropologically inclined can challenge the universality of the “I” and establish that there are humans who might not even use the term nor think of themselves as individuals, according to Heideggerian thought, these people would not really count as “Dasein” given that they are incapable of stepping back and asking the question of the meaning of being (being as presence), which is “do I know what that thing is?” For Heidegger, the very basic phenomenological standpoint presupposes a basic form of I-hood or self-hood given that it is only a self that can recursively wonder if it has seen the world as it is or think about its experience in terms of a self-reflective agent. While such a definition of humanity or Dasein-ness is inherently circular, Heidegger never balks at this circularity, but rather, embraces it because from a developmental standpoint, we who think in such terms were never given a choice about the matter: being raised in the modern world necessarily imprints self-hood upon our children, barring ontic malfunction. The degrees of authenticity and world/self-interpretation vary dramatically of course according to culture, but the basic subject-object structure of mine-ness and interpreting the world as if it were “you” who “looks out” at the world and owns one’s perceptions is, for Heidegger, a “transcendental” requirement.

This peculiar, autobiographical form of transcendental self-hood looks largely different from Braver’s interpretation of early Heidegger, but strikingly similar to his later Heidegger, which is focused on different historical epochs of being. So while it may seem from my posts that I disagree with Braver on every issue in regards to the interpretation of Heidegger, I actually agree with him on most substantial issues, especially in relation to later Heidegger. In most respects, I think his later Heidegger is spot on but my real contention is that his early Heidegger needs to look more like his later Heidegger and both his early and later Heidegger need to look more like realists. When Braver says that later Heidegger “eliminates the distinction between reality and appearance”, I am worried that Braver is turning Heidegger into more of a relativist than he deserves credit for. Although Braver quotes Heidegger saying “both Galileo and his opponents saw the same ‘fact’,” I am not sure that Braver really does does justice to Heidegger’s ontic realism by fleshing out just what “presencing” entails.

Furthermore, it seems like Braver is conflating the absolutely crucial Heideggerian definition of “[B]eing” as “that which determines entiteis as entities” with the standard definition of “that which is“.  I see this ambiguity about what “being” refers to throughout Braver’s text. By never explicitly making the distinction between Heidegger’s definition of being as the disclosure-interpretation of presencing and the standard definition of being, Braver seems to equate later Heidegger’s insistence on the truth of Being as historical with a general relativism about the “truth” of various “worldviews” [I might be wrong on this interpretation of Braver, it is an awfully long and detailed chapter and I probably missed something]. I think this is largely due to the conflation I just mentioned between Heideggerian disclosure-being and the capital B being of “reality”.  We can see this on pg 270 when Braver says:

If we are not to begin with the presuppositions that tell us what reality must be like – especially unchanging, univocal, and so on – then we must take Being as it occurs in these various forms without dismissing them as merely transitory and thus unreal.

Braver consistently persists in confusing “reality” – the totality of entities being presenced – with “Being”, which for Heidegger, was defined in BT not as “reality” or anything like that, but rather “that which defines entities as entities”. This is the as-structure of interpretive-perception. Admittedly, this ambiguity is largely Heidegger’s fault given that he only seems to defines being that way in the introduction to BT and just assumes that the reader will pick up on what he is talking about in all his later work. Again, we can see Braver being led astray by this conflation when we says on pg 274:

The meaning of Being, the goal of [BT], was the temporality that human Dasein project which makes Being possibile, similar to Kant’s transcendental subject projects time and space.

When read through the lens of ontic realism and being as the disclosure-of-presencing then “Dasein making Being possible” is trivial given that it would translate to “Dasein makes it possible for there to be a disclosure of the presenced world to Dasein”. No where in such a reading would there be the anti-realist subjectivity that links early Heidegger to a  truly Kantian project. We see then that later Heidegger and his insistence on epochal being is only carrying out the logical conclusions of what being as presencing entails: the disclosure of the present, ontic world to a human perceiver is necessarily a historical event given the temporality of human lifespans. All later Heidegger was doing was fleshing out the conception of presence and making the historical aspect of being as presence more explicit, although all the hard philosophical work was already done in BT. Implicitly, such a epochal conception of being was there all along if one realizes that the presence of the world happens on a timescale of earlier and later.

I wish I could continue further in working with Braver’s text on all these issues because he does such a good job laying out all the essentials of Heideggerian thought whether you agree or disagree with him. It is a shame that I can only begin to touch on Braver’s scholarship here. Despite my issues with realism, Braver summarizes better than most what a historical phenomenology-ontology looks like, and his scholarship of the Gesamtausgabe is highly impressive and deserving of much praise. It is only in regards to the historical development of Heidegger’s thought that I disagree with Braver (there are also some terminological problems surrounding his use of “reality” that I take issue with, but hopefully my discussion above will help clear that up). In my opinion, the seeds of his later thought can be found implicitly and explicitly in BT and related lectures.

With all that said, I apologize that this post isn’t that informative about later Heidegger as it should have been. In my defense however, the important things I have to say about later Heidegger only make sense if you have a good conception of what early Heidegger was doing, and I wanted to connect the two projects of early and later Heidegger into a cohesive hermeneutic project framed in terms of ontic realism, as suggested by Taylor Carman.

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